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Teen Violence: Myth or Reality?

Donna Soules

Island Parent Magazine Summer 1998: p. 16

We are hearing some disturbing news lately both in the media and in our own communities about teen violence. As a counsellor to high-risk teens for over 20 years, I have become increasingly concerned for our teens' safety. Shortly after the Jonesboro School shooting, a TV documentary brought professionals from varied backgrounds together to discuss their theories about youth and violence. There was an obvious absence of young people in this dialogue. Adults will continue this debate about teen violence for a long time and it is the teens that have the answers. We need to ask them for their views, listen to them, and then together come up with constructive solutions to violence.

While talking with teens over the years, I have heard many disturbing accounts. At-risk youth are much more vulnerable to incidents of violence both as victims and as offenders. When I worked at an alternative school, violence and safety were our primary concerns, so we had a clearly defined structure that all staff consistently followed. Students participated in developing the policies and consequences. Students knew the policies on crime and fighting, and they felt the process was fair since they had ownership of the outcome. When an incident occurred at school, we contacted the parents and informed them of any concerns we had. The parents and the students met with all the staff to collectively come up with a solution to the problem. The solutions were flexible and depended on circumstance. Our goal was to keep students in school and some worked hard to stay there.

Talking with teens in Nanaimo, I've heard many stories where they were victims of aggression and violence. One teen was badly beaten because someone didn't like the colour of his hair. He thought the bully wanted to gain power in front of his friends and was showing off. Another 10 year old boy had a brand new skateboard taken away on the way home from school after he was threatened that he would be beaten up if he didn't comply. The stories go on. It is sad to hear of the experiences that our young people are confronted with at such an early age.

Some teens say they never tell their parents about these incidents. When I ask why they don't tell anyone, they say they are embarrassed, or afraid their parents might make things worse. Some get into trouble for losing a new jacket when, in fact, it has been taken with a threat of harm. The comments that really concern me are made by youths who don't think getting beaten up is a big deal. They make comments like: " Oh that's pretty normal" or "Yeah, that's happened to just about all of us" or "It's no big deal." When teens think that this kind of violence against them is an everyday experience, I worry about the values they have for their own physical safety and the safety of others. Some teens think it is hopeless that anything will change. When they are asked about getting help from adults, they say they don't trust adults to handle the problem in a way that protects them.

Some teens say gangs are the way to go. This clearly tells us that young people do not feel safe and they are taking action to protect themselves. They believe there is safety in numbers. Gangs have rules to live by, they give you power, and you get respect. So their beliefs are that adults don't protect you but your gang members do. Adults can't be with you on the way to and from school, or during school and at breaks.

The good news: when I asked them what they wanted to do about violence and what changes they wanted to make, they had sensible ideas:

  • Older teens should be positive role models.
  • Speak up when violence is happening--don't just ignore it.
  • Get adults to listen and solve the problem the way you want it handled.
  • Make offenders accountable for their actions.
  • Punishment doesn't work--get those involved talking to each other.

Their ideas were quite encouraging.

Adults need to look more closely at how the justice system is handling acts of teen violence and crime. Howard Zehr, a Canadian who has written many articles on reforming the justice system using victim/offender mediation, talks about replacing retributive justice with restorative justice. (Retributive implies punishment, and restorative suggests renewed health and strength.) Restorative justice keeps offenders' self-esteem intact while expecting them to take responsibility for their actions. The focus is not on guilt and punishment, but on responsibility and reparation. It is important for young people to understand what harm their actions have caused. I have witnessed some very moving resolutions between two or more teens when they sit down together face-to- face and share what has happened for both of them. More than once I have seen them become good friends because of what happened -- what was exchanged between them was real, honest and intimate. They had a chance to see someone be real without the bravado.

Here are some ideas for parents:

  • Be clear about your values: don't approve of violence.
  • Don't wait until an issue comes up to talk about violence.
  • Ask your teens about their ideas on violence. Listen and encourage them to share their points-of-view.
  • Reassure them that you will respect how they want to resolve the incident.
  • Communicate with your teens about choices they have when they see violence in the community, the media, or at school.
  • Talk with them about how they might be able to keep themselves safe from harm.
  • Communicate with the school.

If you want to know what your teens think about violence after reading this article, sit down and ask them. If you discover that they feel safe, you can rest easy. And if you find out they have some concerns, you may want to work with them to establish an action plan for their support and safety. Adults and teens that work together to find solutions to violence make safer communities.

(c)2002 Soules Consulting LTD.